December 30, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 346

Could A Chinese Attack To Reunite Taiwan With The Mainland Still Be A Surprise?

December 30, 2021 | By Yigal Carmon and M. Reiter*
China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 346


Senior Chinese personalities, from Xi Jinping down through Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and People's Liberation Army (PLA) commanders, have been reiterating for years that Taiwan must be reunited with mainland China, and that this will happen whether by peaceful means or by way of military action. In recent months, as tensions between Taiwan and China have risen, the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project has found that these statements have been increasing in frequency and intensity.

These statements have been backed by military preparations, many of which have been publicized in Chinese media. China has been openly carrying out military drills simulating an invasion of Taiwan. Some assess that the naval fleet that China has been assembling over the past decade, which is larger but less advanced than the U.S. Navy, is meant to enable China to blockade Taiwan by sea.

China is also very confident about its ability to stand up to the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific, as is evident in the way that Chinese experts describe the balance of power between China and the U.S. For example, when prominent Chinese Professor Jin Canrong discussed the possibility of an American reaction to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, he said: "We have complete confidence in our ability to beat any opponent within 1,000 nautical miles, including the United States and its coalition forces... We have superior electronic warfare capabilities [and] China leads the world in medium- and medium-long-range conventional missiles. There is no force on the planet that can compete with us. The United States has fallen far behind us [and] we are the best in hypersonic missiles... The United States has a single 300m dock that can build one aircraft carrier. How many do we have? 49 of them! We have nothing to be afraid of."[1]

The Chinese statements have been backed by direct provocations, such as the Chinese air force brashly violating Taiwanese airspace.

In light of these consistent threats, provocations, and preparations, which are all being done in the open and which are presented in this article, could a Chinese surprise attack still be possible?

Chinese President Xi Jinping's military parade. (Source:

What Constitutes A Surprise: The Example Of The 1973 Egyptian-Syrian Attack On Israel

Israel's experience in the October 1973 war reveals that even when there are ongoing threats and provocations, including limited war (such as the 1967-1970 War of Attrition[2]), an attack can still come as a surprise.

In the years before the war, the Egyptian leadership had made it clear in diplomatic messages and political declarations that it wanted to attack Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and reunite Sinai with Egypt. The Israeli government and its intelligence agencies were aware of this.

Egypt also made obvious military preparations. In the period leading up to the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, which was planned for launch during the Islamic month of Ramadhan in conjunction with a Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights, the Egyptian military carried out 20 military drills simulating a crossing of the Suez Canal. In a foreshadowing of the planned attack, these drills were codenamed "Badr" after the historic Battle of Badr, which took place in Ramadhan of 632 C.E. between Muhammad's companions and the tribe of Quraish. Meanwhile, Syria also carried out military drills in preparation for the joint invasion of Israel.

The knowledge of Egypt's intentions and preparations did not cause the Israelis to assess that an invasion was imminent. To the contrary, the Israelis believed that the only military goal of these drills was to pressure and threaten Israel. The Israelis assumed that the goal of an Egyptian invasion would be to reoccupy the entire Sinai Peninsula. Since both sides felt that this goal was unattainable due to the strength of Israel's military , the Israelis concluded that an Egyptian invasion was impossible. Israel did not entertain the possibility of an invasion with a limited goal, such as crossing the Suez Canal and advancing only halfway into the Sinai Peninsula – something that was within the capabilities of the Egyptian military.

In addition, Israel was confident that its air superiority would render any Egyptian attack futile, and Egypt's poor performance in the June 1967 war was further reason to downplay the likelihood of an attack.

Israel interpreted Egypt's threats, provocations, and military drills as propaganda aimed at the Egyptian public and the Arab world and at the same time at pressuring Israel to enter into negotiations to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula.

Because it completely overlooked the possibility of a small-scale invasion, Israel did not use emergency assets that could have provided it with valuable intelligence about the upcoming attack. That is, the necessary strategic intelligence could have been available to Israel, but it was too confident about its assessments to use these assets.

In addition, though one Egyptian source did provide Israel with intelligence about the upcoming attack early enough to allow Israel's air force to carry out a pre-emptive strike, Prime Minister Golda Meir decided against such a strike. She felt that if the report turned out to be mistaken, an Israeli attack on Egypt would be entirely unjustified and would seriously harm Israel's standing.

Critically, Israel grossly underestimated Egypt's ideological conviction that reconquering Sinai was absolutely imperative.

At the time, I was serving as a junior officer in the IDF's Intelligence Corps. Upon receiving early-morning reports that the Syrians were clearing minefields they themselves had planted to prevent an Israeli invasion, a senior commander of mine said the unforgettable words: "Look at those silly Syrians. For a drill, they are actually removing the mines!" That's how successful Egypt and Syria were in deceiving Israel.

Egypt had held 20 Badr drills without incident. Thus, the Israelis were caught completely off guard when Egypt's 21st Badr "drill" turned out to be a real invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. On the morning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which coincided that year with Ramadhan, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal into Israeli-held territory. Simultaneously, Syrian forces invaded the Golan Heights.

Israel's experience in 1973 proves that political statements and military provocations may be misinterpreted, regardless of how clear and public they are, to mean something other than what they truly convey. A surprise attack is possible even when there are clear indications that an attack is imminent.

Egyptian forces crossing into the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973 (Source: CIA public domain image)

Pearl Harbor – Another Chronicle Of A Surprise Attack Foretold

A similar lesson can be learned by analyzing the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In light of World War II and the Sino-Japanese War, the U.S. had plenty of reasons to assess that Japan might strike American targets, and American planners had been aware of Japan's naval buildup in the period prior to the attack.

The Americans also knew that Pearl Harbor was one of their most vulnerable assets in the Pacific – American forces in Hawaii were even given budgetary priority over other Pacific assets. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Husband Kimmel, who would months later watch helplessly as the Japanese assaulted Pearl Harbor, had said in February 1941 that an attack on the strategic naval outpost was a possibility. Indeed, many of the ships sunk at Pearl Harbor had been brought to Hawaii as a deterrent to Japanese expansion in Asia.

But even when America's top leadership, including President Roosevelt himself, had strong indications that a Japanese attack was imminent, the information was not acted upon – and no pre-emptive action was taken – out of concerns about alarming the population and provoking the Japanese.

As a result, even though the Americans had all the indications and evidence necessary and presumed that Japan would attack U.S. targets in the Pacific at some point, the air assault on Pearl Harbor came as a total surprise in terms of its magnitude and in terms of Japan's boldness and creativity.

A U.S. battleship sinking during the Pearl Harbor attack. (Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C.)

Implications For Taiwan – Is A Chinese Surprise Attack Still Possible?

While the American defense establishment is probably discussing internally the possibility of an imminent Chinese surprise attack, not one voice in the U.S. appears to have publicly assessed that an attack on Taiwan could take place in the immediate future. Chinese military expert Wang Yunfei has said that at attack could take place even tomorrow,[3] and Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the CCP-run Global Times, has gone even further and said that the process of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland has already begun.[4]

The absence of such an assessment may be in part because American analysts underestimate the ideological aspects of Xi Jinping's need to reunite Taiwan with the mainland. For Xi, reunification with Taiwan is a matter of honor and prestige, of saving face, and of preserving China's national dignity. In addition, failure to reunite Taiwan with China would put the legitimacy of the CCP at risk.[5] While China's red line is Taiwanese independence, and while the CCP may be willing to tolerate the status quo in the short term, China's long-term goal is undoubtedly reunification. This ideological imperative may be powerful enough to overcome many political, economic, domestic, and international deterrents.

Xi Jinping finds himself in the same position as the 17th-century Qing Dynasty emperor Kangxi, to whom Taiwanese independence was also unacceptable, and who also demanded that Taiwan submit itself to the mainland. Emperor Kangxi had said: "Taiwan belongs to China, and the people there are all Chinese. Why should it be treated as a foreign country?" Emperor Kangxi eventually conquered Taiwan by using a gradual strategy that combined limited military action, economic pressure, and pacification,[6] but the situation Xi Jinping faces is different. For Xi, both limited military action and a full-scale invasion might spark a chain of events leading to a full-scale war with the West. Therefore, if he decides to successfully reunify Taiwan with China, Xi might as well opt for a full-scale invasion.

Although the U.S. does not dismiss the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan, the current political and military assessment is that a military invasion will only take place after China succeeds in passing certain critical events in the future, and even then only if the CCP cannot absorb Taiwan by other means.

There have been predictions that a Chinese invasion would not take place before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, or before the CCP's 20th Party Congress in October of 2022. Admiral Philip Davidson, the former commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, said in March that China might not invade Taiwan until 2027, a key milestone year for China because it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the PLA.[7] General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also dismissed the likelihood of a strike in the near future.[8]

However, a conflict may break out earlier than predicted above, either because of miscalculations,[9] as a result conscious and deliberate policy decisions on the part of the CCP leadership, or even due to precipitous actions by Taiwan. The West is transparent about its assessments regarding Taiwan, and the Chinese know what America is expecting and not expecting. This gives the Chinese leadership an advantage over Taiwan and its Western allies.

Emperor Kangxi (Source: Weibo)

What Is China Signaling About Reunifying Taiwan With The Mainland?

The signals that China is sending can be separated into four categories: military preparations, provocations, ideological statements, and political statements.

Military Preparations

Beginning in December 2016, Xi Jinping ordered the PLA to conduct aircraft "patrols" around Taiwan. He also ordered all military branches of the PLA to increase military exercises and preparations for war against Taiwan.

In 2019, China's State Council Information Office published the 2019 Defense White Paper, which stated: "China's armed forces strengthen military preparedness with emphasis on the sea. By sailing ships and flying aircraft around Taiwan, the armed forces send a stern warning to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces."[10]

In July 2021, the PLA conducted an amphibious drill on China's southeast coast that simulated rapidly seizing an island.[11]

Just a month later, in August 2021, the PLA carried out live-fire assault exercises in the region near Taiwan. The drills involved warships, anti-submarine aircraft, and fighter jets. As part of the exercise, Chinese troops were deployed in China's southeastern and southwestern regions, which the party-run Global Times said is an indication that the PLA is capable of "sealing off the entire territory of Taiwan's main island and laying siege to it."[12]

Military affairs expert Wang Yanan, the chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, also defended the exercises, claiming that they are in response to "provocations" by Taiwanese separatists. He said: "Those who instigate tension and antagonism in our seas had better get used to more exercises by the Chinese military."[13]

Chinese warship conducting live-fire drill (Source: Weibo)

(Source: MEMRI TV Clip No. 9187, Viral Chinese Music Video Titled "Traveling To Taiwan In 2035" Predicts Reunification With Taiwan: "Get On That Train To Taiwan", November 4, 2021.)


In December 2020, two Chinese aircraft carriers and several other vessels sailed through the Taiwan Straits simultaneously. According to Duowei News, this was a "warning" and a "clear declaration" of China's intentions to reunify Taiwan and the mainland.[14]

In January 2021, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian addressed the issue of Chinese military aircraft's incursion into Taiwan's airspace. Claiming that the incursions are in response to "provocations from 'Taiwan independence' forces" and to foreign "intervention," Wu said: "Military activities carried out by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the Taiwan Strait are necessary actions taken to address the current security situation across the Strait and the need to safeguard national sovereignty and security." Wu warned that Taiwanese independence "means war."[15]

Over the past few months, the PLA Air Force has set a new record, flying 149 sorties of fighter jets in four days toward Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone. Chinese aircraft and naval vessels have also been circling Taiwan.[16]

Hu Xijin, who until recently was the editor-in-chief of the CCP-run Global Times, has provided justification and context for these provocations, saying that the process of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland has already begun.[17]

Prominent Chinese academic Yan Xuetong, the dean of Tsingua University's Institute of Contemporary International Relations, wrote in a paper published in July 2021: "The more countries that support Taiwan's independence, the more the Chinese People's Liberation Army will feel compelled to conduct military drills to deter Taiwan."[18]

The foreign affairs social media account of the CCP mouthpiece People's Daily, Xiakedao, has stressed the "necessity and urgency of the PLA military planes to continuously cruise around Taiwan."[19]

Xian H-6k bombers lined up at PLAAF airbase (Source:

Ideological Statements

Since coming to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has adopted an increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan.

In November 2016, at a ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Chinese political philosopher Sun Yat-sen, Xi said: "Achieving the complete reunification of the motherland is in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation… Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one and the same China… All separatist activities will be resolutely opposed by the Chinese people. We will never allow anyone [to] split any piece of Chinese territory from China!"

The following year, at the 19th CCP National Congress, Xi said that China will "thwart" any form "'Taiwan independence' separatist conspiracy."

In 2018, at the first session of the 13th National People's Congress, Xi reiterated that "every inch" of the "great motherland's" territory cannot be separated from mainland China.

Furthermore, in 2019, at the meeting marking the 40th anniversary of the Issuance of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, he said: "Cross-Strait reunification is the trend of history. 'Taiwan independence' goes against the trend of history and will lead to a dead end." In the same speech, Xi emphasized: "We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means."

Xi became more strident over time, publicly investing much of his personal prestige in absorbing Taiwan. In July 2021, at the ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the CCP, Xi said: "Realizing China's complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the CCP… We must take resolute action to smash any attempt toward "Taiwan independence," and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the firm resolve, the strong will, and the formidable capacity of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity."[20] [21]

Prominent Chinese professor Jin Canrong has reinforced the ideological importance of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland. He said in a speech that was posted online in September 2021 that the "resolution of the Taiwan issue" can bring "practical" gains to China's national prestige, national morale, economy, and military and strategic positions vis-à-vis the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, Jin said that China has the opportunity to replace the United States as the "new big boss" if China successfully reunites Taiwan with the mainland.[22]

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 13th National People's Congress (Source:

Political Statements

By Chinese Officials And Scholars

In a talk show that aired on October 31, 2021, popular Chinese military expert Wang Yunfei said that if Taiwan declares independence, or if peaceful reunification cannot be achieved, then China could take over Taiwan "as early as tomorrow."[23]

Then-Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stressed the inevitability of reunification regardless of American involvement: "No matter how many weapons the U.S. provides to Taiwan, it cannot change the overarching trend of cross-Strait relations, let alone halt the process of China's reunification."[24]

Hua's successor, Zhao Lijian, said in December 2021 that if separatist forces "cross the red line," China will take "decisive measures." He warned the U.S. that the One-China Principle cannot be challenged and that any action supporting Taiwanese independence is bound to fail.[25]

At a regular press conference held by the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, spokesperson Zhu Fenglian threatened Taiwan independence figures who expressed "regret" for not being included in China's blacklist of "Taiwan independence stubborn elements." She said: "Don't worry, there will come a time when you will truly feel sorry."[26]

According to Tang Yonghong, the Deputy Director of the Taiwan Research Center at Xiamen University, the CCP's desire to reunite Taiwan with the mainland is the biggest public opinion trend in China.[27] Tang has also said that relations between China and the United States could only be normalized after Taiwan reunifies with the mainland and the issue is resolved.[28]

In an article published in May 2021, Chinese scholar Shi Yinhong, the Director for American Studies at the Renmin University's School of International Studies, said that one of China's most important strategic goals is to unify Taiwan with China.[29]

In December 2020, the CCP's Global Times held its annual forum, during which Zhu Feng, an international relations professor at Nanjing University, said: "Reunification [is] only a matter of time." Chiu Yi, an expert of cross-straits relations, also said at the forum that whether the possibility of peaceful reunification exists or not, it depends on how to define peaceful reunification: "If it means reunification without pressure from the mainland, then peaceful reunification won't happen. If it means peaceful reunification under military pressure, then it would be possible."[30]

At the following year's forum, held in December 2021, Wang Zaixi, the former Deputy Director of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, warned: "If a war breaks out, the island of Taiwan stands no chance."[31]

Professor Cao Weidong, a former naval officer who served as military attaché at the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom, said: "Guns, shells, and artillery are the only language that separatists and foreign interventionists can understand."[32]

Shen Yi, a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, has said that if China goes to war over Taiwan, it will not stop until it completely reunites it with the mainland. He also said that China is willing to use all of its resources to this end.[33]

Chinese personalities have also reacted vocally to any foreign expressions of support for Taiwanese independence. Naturally, the United States has been the main target of threats and criticism of foreign intervention, but Chinese figures have even spoken out against less-consequential countries. One example is Lithuania, which recently exchanged diplomatic offices with Taiwan. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian reacted: "Lithuania has made serious errors in Taiwan-related matters [and should] confess and correct its mistakes."[34] In addition, Chinese TV host Tian Liu called for using an "iron fist" to punish Lithuania, saying that China should "kill the chicken to frighten the monkey" so that countries know not to mess with China.[35]

(Source: MEMRI TV Clip No. 9231, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian: America Must Know That The One-China Principle Cannot Be Challenged; We Will Strive For Peaceful Reunification With Taiwan, But Will Take 'Decisive Measures' If Necessary, December 6, 2021)

In Media And Popular Culture

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the CCP-run Global Times, has been very vocal about the issue of Taiwan, notably in English-language vlogs that he has posted. Hu has said that the process of reunification has already begun, that a "complete solution" to the Taiwan issue is on the horizon,[36] that the One-China Principle is "rock solid," that Taiwanese independence is a "dead end,"[37] that Taiwanese separatists should learn a lesson from what happened to the Hong Kong independence movement, that the peaceful nature of China's reunification efforts may change "overnight,"[38] that the issue of Taiwan is approaching the tipping point, [39] and that China is merely defending its territorial integrity. [40] He has also warned: "One of the keys to a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan Strait issue still exists in the hands of the Taiwan authorities today, but not forever... One day, it will be taken away by history."[41]

An August 2021 Global Times editorial said that Taiwan should draw a lesson from Afghanistan: "From what happened in Afghanistan, [the Taiwan Democratic People's Party authorities] should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island's defense will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won't come to help. As a result, the DPP authorities will quickly surrender, while some high-level officials may flee by plane."[42]

In March 2021, the Chinese media outlet Duowei reflected a faster tempo in the party timeline: "Public opinion in the mainland has also worn out patience toward peaceful reunification, making louder and louder the voice of 'military unification.' 'Taiwan independence means war' has become among the very few common understandings between both sides."[43]

In November 2021, a music video titled "Traveling to Taiwan in 2035" went viral on Chinese social media. The video featured landmark tourist attractions in Taiwan alongside landmarks in mainland China and predicted that China's bullet train railway will reach Taiwan by 2035.[44]

In response to reports that the Taiwanese people had been stockpiling three months' worth of rations for the event of war, popular Chinese media personality Zhang Bin, a host on the state-run CCTV, said in a video that went viral: "I wouldn't recommend rationing for three months; a half-day should suffice. Even if there isn't any food in the house, you won't eat dinner or breakfast after that, but you will undoubtedly eat a solid lunch. Why? Because I believe the Taiwan problem can be solved in half a day, if not a day."[45]

(Source: MEMRI TV Clip No. 9187, Viral Chinese Music Video Titled "Traveling To Taiwan In 2035" Predicts Reunification With Taiwan: "Get On That Train To Taiwan", November 4, 2021)


This article does not pretend to predict whether a Chinese attack to reunite Taiwan with the mainland will take place. We don't know that. What we are trying to assert in the above analysis is that if China does decide to take aggressive military action to occupy Taiwan, such an attack could still come as a surprise to the West, even though there is sufficient information about China's intentions and capabilities.

It may be that any Western assessment, if there is one, about the unlikelihood of a Chinese attack is guided by the assumption that the economic consequences for China would be crippling enough to deter Xi from attacking Taiwan, especially since Taiwan does not seem to be a territory vital to China's continued existence.

What does not seem to be a sufficient deterrent against China is America's current military capabilities. China's naval industrial output surpasses that of America and its allies, and the tyranny of distance limits the United States' capability to swiftly respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

In the cases of Pearl Harbor and the Sinai Peninsula, military deterrence also proved to be insufficient. Egypt took the strategic risk of invading Sinai, even though it was not vital for Egypt's existence. Similarly, Japan took the strategic risk of attacking Pearl Harbor, even though destroying the American fleet was not vital for Japan's military plans.

Hence, basing a strategic assessment on the question of whether a territory or a single military target is vital enough to justify risking crippling consequences proved to be a mistake in 1941 and in 1973, and may prove again to be a mistake in the case of China and Taiwan.

Furthermore, any anticipated economic retaliation for invading Taiwan may ultimately prove to be less meaningful and less intimidating for China than expected. It remains unclear whether the threat of economic retaliation is a strong enough deterrent. In 1989, when Deng Xiaoping faced the risk of economic sanctions if he were to use the PLA to repress the Tiananmen protests, Deng nevertheless did so. Deng risked China's economy, which was the cornerstone of his endeavor as China's leader, and survived.

As happened in 1941 and 1973, the ideological imperative behind reunifying Taiwan with the Chinese mainland may override the risk of consequences for China, which ultimately may even be minimal, and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan may become another infamous historical surprise attack.

* Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; M. Reiter is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


6&chksm=fade0febcda986fdc32ef6fdc2c287c7e551c09106d3606fcc7b3f6e4e508bd137d2be92bcff#rd, December 28, 2021.

[2] A low-intensity conflict that took place between Egypt and Israel, mostly around the Suez Canal. The war primarily involved the use of artillery, aerial warfare, and commando raids.

[5] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1608, For Chinese President Xi Jinping, Conquering Taiwan Is A Matter Of Honor And 'Saving Face', November 29, 2021.

[6] Emperor Kangxi first conquered Penghu, a small island outlying Taiwan, and then convinced Taiwan's leadership to surrender to the Qing Dynasty. For more, see MEMRI Daily Brief No. 336, In His Quest To Seize Taiwan, Chinese President Xi May Apply The Strategy Of 17th-Century Emperor Kangxi, November 8, 2021.

[7], March 9, 2021.

[8], June 17, 2021.

[10], July 24, 2019.

[13], August 31, 2021.

[16], October 5, 2021.

[19], November 14, 2021.

[26], November 24, 2021.

[30], December 6, 2020.

[32], November 14, 2021.

[34], December 24, 2021.

cb4143a102012b1d5a7dd0b9b74f96d271da266f835f05da2d7bfcc1a37db3cedec5#rd, December 13, 2021.

[45], October 31, 2021.

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